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Small firm lawyers in 2019: geographic data, earnings, career satisfaction and more

Stacked3Here is a recent Daily Record column. My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.


Small firm lawyers in 2019: geographic data, earnings, career satisfaction and more

Running a small law firm in 2019 isn’t easy, in part because the legal marketplace is in the midst of an unprecedented transformation. 21st century technologies and globalization are significantly impacting the business of law and continue to disrupt and alter the competitive landscape. Small firm lawyers are not immune from the rapid pace of change, and market forces have significantly altered many aspects of small firm practice.

For evidence of this you need look no further than the results of a number of different studies that were released this year. These reports include a vast array of data on small firm lawyers and their practices, including demographics and earnings data, along with insights on the pace of change and how law firms and lawyers are being affected by it. Here are some of the more interesting statistics from those reports.

Lawyer demographics and growth

For starters, according to the 2019 ABA National Lawyer Population Survey, lawyers are concentrated in regional pockets throughout the United States. The five states with the highest number of resident active attorneys living in the state are:

New York – 182,296
California – 170,117
Texas – 91,244
Florida – 78,448
Illinois – 62,720
D.C. – 56,135

In comparison, the same report shows that Alaska, Delaware, West Virginia, North Dakota, and Wyoming have a combined total lawyer population of less than 14,000.

Interestingly, according to another study, the ABA’s 2019 Profile of the Legal Profession Report, the states with the largest lawyer populations aren’t necessarily the states whose lawyer numbers are growing the quickest. Some of the states with the highest percentage of growth over the last decade were Florida with 28% growth, followed by Utah (27%), North Dakota (24%), North Carolina (22%), Texas (22%), and New York (19%). And D.C. has the most lawyers per capita, with 56,000 lawyers, with lawyers representing 1 out of every 13 D.C. residents.

Lawyer earnings

Next up, let’s take a look at lawyer earnings. According to the data from ABA’s 2019 Profile of the Legal Profession Report, the average lawyer salary is $144,230. Notably, lawyer earnings have increased far more slowly since the 2008 recession, and lawyer wages have increased only 9.3% in the past 5 years, compared to the 45% increase seen between 1997-2002.

Interestingly, according to the report, lawyers come in 4th overall for average industry wage, behind doctors, CEOs, and dentists.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that lawyer earnings vary greatly by region. The top 5 metropolitan regions where lawyers earned the most in 2018 were: 1) San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA ($207,950), 2) San Francisco-Oakland-Hayword, CA ($188,070), 3)Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD ($179.980), 4) Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA ($176,020), and 5) Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX ($175,380).

Also of interest is that according to the results of the Martindale-Avvo 2019 Attorney Compensation Report, small law firm earnings have increased overall in the past year. The survey results indicate that the mean earnings for the lawyers surveyed increased from $194,000 in 2017 to $198,000 in 2018. Similarly, the median earnings likewise increased from $135,000 in 2017 to $140,000 in 2018. 

Also notable are the top 5 most profitable practice areas. In 2018 they were: 1) medical malpractice ($267,000 on average), 2) personal injury ($254,000), 3) worker’s compensation ($226,000), 4) intellectual property ($224,000), and 5) business ($218,000).

Career satisfaction

And last but not least, the lawyers surveyed for the Martindale-Avvo Report were asked whether, if given a choice, they’d choose law as a career again. The vast majority said they would (71%). 74% reported that they’d choose the same practice area(s), and 57% said they’d choose that same work setting.

What about you? Would you do it all over again? And if so, what would you change, if anything?

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase  law practice management software for small law firms. She is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. You can follow her on Twitter at @nikiblack or email her at